Antigen testing will be available for pupils in schools from next week, the Minister for Education has said.
Norma Foley said on Wednesday that the programme of antigen testing, led by the HSE, will begin next Monday.
“The chief medical officer has now determined that there is a role for antigen testing in our schools as an additional tool in our schools. It has been led by the HSE, and it will be operational, the HSE has informed, from the 29th,” she said.
Ms Foley stressed that the Department of Education is doing all it can to increase the availability of substitute teachers, amid concerns about staff shortages.
Teacher education colleges, following a meeting with Ms Foley on Tuesday, have agreed to release some students to schools.
Retired teachers, as part of the plan, will also be able to work for longer in schools without affecting their pension entitlements.
Teachers who are on secondment to education support services are now also able to return to work in schools.
“We now have added significantly in this past week. One hundred additional teachers and now 200 additional as of yesterday, so we now have 680 teachers being made available to provide emergency cover to schools,” Ms Foley told RTÉ radio.
“It is a cumulative approach that’s been taken.”
She defended her department from accusations that it had failed to see the staff shortages coming.
“There has been significant, not just in immediate planning, but there has been long-term planning as well,” she said.
“I do want to acknowledge that these are exceptionally challenging times for all of society, but most especially within the education sector.”
The Education Minister also said that schools remain largely safe places, despite concerns about the spread of Covid-19 and calls from trade unions and headteachers for the resumption of contact tracing.
“There has been nothing easy about Covid. There are no straight lines when it comes to Covid. But notwithstanding that I do want to acknowledge that there has been considerable support and infection prevention control measures made available to schools.”
“Schools continue to be places of low transmission, notwithstanding that we see now in the wider community an increase in terms of Covid.”
Speaking about the problems facing schools, the Minister for Education said that any schools experiencing difficulty with ventilation should contact her department for technical advice.
Ms Foley told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland that over 35,000 CO2 monitors had been installed in schools throughout the country, and that natural ventilation was the best possible source.
Schools with additional difficulties could contact engineers or architects or make use of a technical advice team in the Department, she said.
Ms Foley defended planning by her department, she said that many of the plans now being implemented had been in place last August, but that Covid “takes many twists and turns.”
“We have to be resilient and flexible at given times to introduce new measures as required.
“That is exactly what we have done at this point. And indeed we will continue to do going forward.”